Is Your Writing Clear as Mud?

Yep, it happened again. And all you were doing was sitting in front of your computer, minding your own business, and going through the daily plethora of incoming emails. And there it came. You didn’t deserve this first thing in your working morning. But there it was.

There was another email from your co-worker.  The one whose emails you especially dread. The email you knew would only be the first in a long series of email exchanges as you tried to figure out what he or she was trying to tell you. The one with a foggy subject line (the email, not the co-worker, although….) You knew automatically that this email would be very, very long while the writer seemed to be working out just what he or she was trying to say, and that you would have to spend extra time you didn’t have this morning, guessing at just what your co-worker was trying to tell you – just as you always have to do with this person.

And it may have crossed your mind that if your co-worker only knew what he or she was talking about…. Because consciously or not, unfairly or not, that is how most of us, as readers, evaluate the writing of others: If we don’t know what the writer is talking about, we assume that the writer doesn’t, either.

Don’t let this happen to you! Don’t be the writer who produces those dreaded emails. Your writing must build your credibility and professionalism, not destroy it. 

Here’s how to do it right:

  1. The biggest hindrance to clarity is sending yourself mixed messages. Lack of clarity in your writing is almost always due to lack of clarity in your thinking. So start by asking yourself, “What do I want to tell my reader?” And then, “Why?” And maybe, from a strategic point of view, “What do I want my reader to think I have said?”
  1. Clarify, in your own mind, whether you are writing to inform – in which case you will use words like “tell,” “state,”  “notify,”  “inform”…. Ask yourself, “Inform about what?” 

If you are writing to persuade – in which case you will use words like “motivate,” “convince,” “justify,” “persuade”…. Ask yourself, “persuade to do what?”

This choice is the most critical decision you will make about this piece of writing. Writing to inform is very different from writing to persuade. And you need to know which you are doing, to be clear with your reader.

If you are writing to inform, you will want to put the information before your reader as clearly and concisely as you can, but once he or she has your information, what that reader does with, or about it is up to the reader.

On the other hand, if you are writing to persuade, you will obviously want to put the information before your reader clearly and concisely, but the whole point of the piece is what the reader will do with the information you have presented.

Be clear in your own mind which side you’re on before you be you begin to write, if you want to be clear to your reader. Your reader needs to know, “What am I supposed to do with, or about, this piece of writing?”

  1. So now that we have pretty well nailed our strategy, and understand what we want to have happen, it’s time to look at the mechanical devices that will help to clarify our writing:

a. Begin with a who-what-when-where-why-how first paragraph.

b. Select your content to relate to the needs of your readers.

c. Organize your content. Before you begin to write, group similar information. Depending on the length of your piece, each group will be either a paragraph or a section/chapter. Then organize your “groups” in a logical sequence

d. Vary the length of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. Some short, some long, some in between.

e. Use words that are easily understood by, and are within the comfort level of your reader.

f.  Use an average sentence length of 14-17 words.

g. Use active sentences.

h. Use alternative formats. Lists, using numbers, letters, or bullet points are especially useful.

i. Decide on your last paragraph: conclusion? summary? “nicety?” or just quit? Here’s a chance to clarify what your reader is supposed to do, if anything.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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